May 27, 2014

2014 Junior National Basketball Championship tips off in Kochi with big win for Chhattisgarh Girls

With a total of 47 boys' and girls' under-18 teams attending and ready to contend for the title, India's 2014 Junior National Basketball Championship tipped off in Kochi (Kerala) on Monday. From their very first game, Girls' reigning champs Chhattisgarh made their intent clear to once again be considered as one of the title favourites with a big win over Tamil Nadu. In the boys' division, top contenders Tamil Nadu and Punjab both got their campaigns off with convincing victories as well.

The championship was declared open at the Rajiv Gandhi Indoor Stadium in the city by Hibi Eden (MLA) and presided by the K Manohar Kumar, the president of the Kerala Basketball Association (KBA). The Basketball Federation of India (BFI) is organizing the tournament in auspices with the KBA. The finale of the tournament is set to be held on June 2.

The participating teams are:

  • Group A: Delhi, Kerala, Madhya Pradesh, Chhattisgarh, Haryana.
  • Group B: Punjab, Tamil Nadu, Karnataka, Odhisa, Maharashtra.
  • Group C: Rajasthan, Himachal Pradesh, Jammu and Kashmir.
  • Group D: Andhra Pradesh, Gujarat, Puducherry.
  • Group E: Bihar, Goa, Uttarakhand.
  • Group F: Assam, Chandigarh, Uttar Pradesh, West Bengal.
  • Group A: Chhattissgarh, Tamil Nadu, Uttar Pradesh, Karnataka, Punjab.
  • Group B: Kerala, Maharashtra, Rajasthan, Madhya Pradesh, Haryana.
  • Group C: Odisha, Himachal Pradesh, Jammu and Kashmir.
  • Group D: Delhi, Gujarat, Puducherry.
  • Group E: Andhra Pradesh, Goa, Uttarakhand.
  • Group F: Bihar, Chandigarh, West Bengal.
Girls' reigning champs Chhattisgarh got their campaign off with a win, despite a slow start against Tamil Nadu. TN took a six point lead in the first quarter, but Chhattisgarh came storming back to take a lead at halftime, and blazed past to finish the game with a 83-64 victory. Chhattisgarh's duo of Sharanjeet Kaur (29 points) and Sangeeta Kaur (23) were unstoppable throughout. Shrividhya led with 24 points for the losing side.

In a high-scoring contest, Preeti Kumari exploded for 40 points to help lead Uttar Pradesh to a 85-79 win over Karnataka. The victory included UP bouncing back from a nine point deficit at the end of the third quarter to outscore their opponents 32-17 in the final period. Barkha Sonkar added 20 for UP. Bhandavya and Lopamurda - two of the top young Karnataka players - led their team with 26 and 23 points each.

Boys' finalists Punjab got off to a good start, as Jaipal Singh (23) and Arshpreet Singh (17) helped their side to a 75-52 blowout win over Karnataka.

In another Boys' game, Tamil Nadu dominated Maharashtra from start to finish en route to an easy 90-49 win. Jedidah of TN had 24 points for the winning team.

 Selected Scores Boys
  • Tamil Nadu (Jedidah 24, Muin 15) bt. Maharashtra (Qureshi 15) 90-49(17-6, 34-15, 23-13, 16-15).
  • Punjab (Jaipal Singh 23, Arshpreet Singh 17) bt Karnataka 75-52 (12-11, 14-6, 18-16, 31-19).
  • Madhya Pradesh (Shubham Mishra 26, BP Singh 16, H Singh 16) bt Kerala (Akhil AR 18) 75-64 (9-23, 13-16, 28-6, 25-19).
  • Chhattisgarh (Sharanjeet Kaur 29, Sangeeta Kaur 23) bt. Tamil Nadu (Shrividhya 24) 83-64 (15-21, 25-10, 16-15, 27-18).
  • Uttar Pradesh (Preeti Kumari 40, Barkha Sonkar 20) bt. Karnataka (Bhandavya 26, Lopamudra 23) 85-79 (21-26, 16-13, 16-23, 32-17).
  • Delhi (Nishita 20, Soumya Babbar 16, Jyoti Rai 15) bt. Puducherry 73-29 (20-7, 21-11, 15-4, 17-7).

May 24, 2014

Kochi to host 2014 Junior (U18) National Basketball Championship

Kochi in Kerala, a basketball-crazed city in a basketball-crazed state, will be the hosts of India's 65th National Basketball Championship for Junior Boys and Girls, starting from May 26th - June 2nd. The 'Junior Nationals' will be organized by the Kerala Basketball Association (KBA) under the auspices of the Basketball Federation of India (BFI) and held at the Rajiv Gandhi Indoor Stadium in the city.

This national event will culminate with under-18 state teams from all across the country taking part, including 24 team's in the boys' section and the 23 among the girls. The Junior Championship is coming to Kerala after a gap of 37 years, with the last one being held back in 1977. Over a 1000 participants including referees, coaches, officials & members of the Indian basketball fraternity will be attending the championship in an official guise.

The Championship will be officially opened by Hibi Eden MLA, presided over by Arjuna Award winner and President of Kerala State Sports Council Padmini Thomas in presence of Secretary General of BFI Ajay Sud and Technical Committee Chairman G M Sampath Kumar.

Chhattisgarh (Girls) are this championships's reigning champions while Delhi (Boys) won the gold medal in Cuttack last year. Hosts Kerala will be hoping to challenge in both divisions once more, especially after their girls' side lost in last year's final. Punjab and Tamil Nadu are other top contenders in the boys' division while Maharashtra will be one of Chhattisgarh's top challengers among the girls.

The finals will be played on 2nd June 2014. The championship will carry a Prize money of Rs 1 lakh for the winners, Rs 75,000 for the runners-up and Rs 50,000 for the bronze medalists.

May 23, 2014

The Professionals: Through the ups and the downs, these 3 role players have stuck with their teams

There are three professionals who have remained stuck with their teams through thick and thin from day one and have now been synonymous with the colours of their team for at least a decade. These guys have never made NBA All Star Team and were never considered to be centerpieces. They were never important enough to build a team around, but their company/franchise considered them important in a more intangible way, and returned their loyalty with a long-tenure.

These are the NBA’s ultimate professionals, the guys that every team wants to make a part of their culture.

Click here for the full feature.

May 22, 2014

Déjà Déjà Vu: The Cavaliers win draft lottery again (and again)

After winning their third number one pick in the last four years, the team facing the most scrutiny, yet again, will be the Cavaliers. They need to find the right fit to play next to Irving, Waiters, Thompson, Bennett, and Anderson Varejao. They need to find a new coach, too. And they’ll be looking ahead, with hopes of tempting LeBron James back to Cleveland if they can finally have the pieces that will tempt their former superstar. Once more, the Cavs are on the clock.

Click here to read full feature.

May 20, 2014

The Elgin Baylor All Stars

No one has suffered an NBA championship blemish as cruelly as Elgin Baylor, not only because of his exceptional talents, but also because of how close he got to filling in that last, most important blank space in his career’s resume. In that (slightly depressing) vein, here are the three ‘Elgin Baylor All Stars’, the current most talented players in the league without an NBA title. These players are at or near the peak of their powers, are the masters of their own championship destinies, and have been in the league long enough for their fan-bases to start getting restless.

Click here for full feature.

May 19, 2014

Israel's Maccabi Tel Aviv win 2014 Euroleague Basketball title

Expected to be underdogs, Israel's Maccabi Tel Aviv let their on-court performance do the talking, and came up as the surprise winners of the 2014 EuroLeague Basketball title in Milan (Italy) with a thrilling overtime victory over Real Madrid on Sunday, May 18th. With the victory, Maccabi secured their sixth Euroleague Basketball title and handed eight-time winners Madrid their second consecutive loss in the tournament's final.

Click here for full article.

May 18, 2014

The Missing Links: 2014 Conference Finals Preview

Moving on to the next round, it won’t be each team’s strengths that leads them through to the NBA Finals, it’ll be the small weaknesses of their opponents. To preview the Conference Finals, I recap each team’s missing links, and then, I predict the teams last two teams standing.

Click here for full feature.

India win 3rd SABA Basketball Championship; qualify for FIBA Asia Cup

Taking care of business. That was the theme for Indian Basketball over the past week as the senior national Men's squad visited our northern neighbours Nepal for the 3rd South Asian Basketball Championship and dismantled all our South Asian opponents in four efficient victories. India finished at the top with the final win over Maldives on Saturday, May 17th in Kathmandu, and thus qualified for the 5th FIBA Asia Cup set to be held in Wuhan (China) in mid-July.

Photo courtesy:
The tournament, organized by the South Asian Basketball Association (SABA) was held from May 13-17 in Kathmandu and featured five teams: India, hosts Nepal, Bangladesh, Sri Lanka, and Maldives. India, led by Head Coach Scott Flemming and featuring a team with a healthy mix of youth/experience and size/ball-handling skills had little trouble winning all four of their matches to finish at the top.

India started off with a bang, taking a 30-point halftime lead over Bangladesh in the first half and refusing to take their foot off the pedal en route to a 95-39 blowout victory. Up-and-coming big man Amjyot Singh - one of the most improved Indian players in recent years - was the leading scorer of a balanced Indian attack with 16 points.

India's offense remained balanced as no one topped 15 points in their second game, another massive victory over Sri Lanka, 97-30. India held their opponents to single digits in each of the first three quarters of the game.

Photo courtesy:
A fervent support followed India's opponents in the third game - Nepal - the hosts of the tournament. India took a huge 16-point lead early in the game but Nepal refused to give in, outscoring India in the second quarter. Still, the South Asian giants were too much for the hosts to handle. Prakash Mishra led all scorers with 17 points as India finished the day with a 74-41 win.

India enjoyed their best offensive outburst in the last game against the Maldives, once again relying on Mishra's game-high 16 points to overwhelm their opponents en route to a 108-32 victory. A highlight of this victory was India's brilliant third quarter, where their suffocating defense held the Maldives to just three points!

Final Standings
  • 1. India (4-0)
  • 2. Bangladesh (3-1)
  • 3. Sri Lanka (2-2)
Photo courtesy:
India will now take part in the 2014 FIBA Asia Cup, (formerly known as the FIBA Asia Stankovic Cup), in China from July 11-19. A total of 10 countries are set to take part in this tournament, but so far, only hosts China, Iran (defending champions of the FIBA Asia Championship), and India (after winning the SABA Championship) have qualified. India's guard Vishesh Bhriguvanshi hinted that India will head to China a few weeks prior to the tournament for practice games.

The South Asian opponents - although much weaker than India - did help the team prepare and find its identity once again. Indian basketball has been on a positive roll of late, since they also won the gold medal at the previous international tournament they took part in: the 2014 Lusofonia Games. But the FIBA Asia Cup will be a far trickier challenge, with some of the top Asian teams to contend with. India has never finished better that fifth in this tournament and they finished last in Tokyo (Japan) at the tournament's most recent iteration in 2012.

The SABA Championship victory was taking care of business. But now, business is about to get much harder, and while India enter the next tournament as underdogs, there will be hope among die-hard fans that they can spring up a surprise or two.

May 16, 2014

Powering Forward: Foreign Coaches playing for the present and planning for the future of Indian Basketball

This article was first published in my column on Ekalavyas on May 6, 2014. You can find the original post here. 

Indian Women’s Head Coach Francisco Garcia at work with his team during training camp Jaypee Greens Integrated Sports Center in Greater Noida.

“Vamos! Vamos! Vamos!” Coach Francisco Garcia energetically roared at the young Indian women on court, “Go! Go! Go!”

Garcia – a Spaniard – admits the occasional language gap from his mother tongue to English to Hindi or any of the other regional languages like Marathi, Tamil, or Malayalam that the girls in his team spoke. And the girls admit that, particularly in the heat of the moment, their Head Coach for the past 10 months reverted back to instructions in Spanish.

Everyone understands “Vamos!” though. Come on. Let’s Go. Forward. Aagey Chalo.

Looking forward has become the mantra for basketball in India. Garcia, and his associate Scott Flemming who is the head coach of India’s Men’s National Basketball team, were appointed between a year and a year-and-a-half ago for the first big challenges of leading India to FIBA Asia’s Women’s and Men’s Championships. They’ve stuck around since, and as both coaches reach the end of their first contracts, their eyes seem to be as much at the present of Indian Basketball – the next few international tournaments – as they are on the future.

I caught both the national team coaches and the senior men and women squads in practice recently, as they were in camp to prepare for future international tournaments at the Jaypee Greens Integrated Sports Center in Greater Noida. This was the first time that the coaches were formally interacting with their senior squads since India’s inspired performances at the Lusofonia Games in Goa back in January. Being at the great new facility and the success of the recent past seemed to have inspired the coaches to think more optimistically than ever. And amidst their practices, they both conveyed a sense of long-term planning and preparation to ensure that India remains on the path to becoming a basketball power even after their time in the country.

The responsibility of being ‘Head Coach’ in India extends far beyond the 12 men or women in the national team or the 20 or so probables that arrive in camp; both Flemming and Garcia have been working to instill a system of coaching, training, and selection junior players from a young age so that they are better prepared for the senior level as they grow older. Both of them have also spent a considerable amount of their time in India coaching other coaches to make sure their system and philosophies are passed on.

For Flemming, his senior team assistant coaches have been instilling his tactics in the Men’s Under-18 and Under-16 teams for India.

Meanwhile, the Senior Men’s team has a big year ahead. In a few weeks, they will be heading to Kathmandu (Nepal) to take part in the South Asian Basketball Association (SABA) Basketball Championship. Victory there will help India qualify for the Asia Cup, set to be held in Wuhan (China) in Mid-July. Sometime in August, the national team might head to Dubai for a top level Asian invitational basketball tournament. And finally in September, they will shift their attention to the 2014 Asian Games in Incheon (South Korea).

“We’ll be together all summer long,” said Flemming.

“I love my players and my coaches,” he added, “It feels great to be able to help young men improve on and off the court. I feel that I’m here with a bigger purpose than to just coach the game. I’m here to make a difference in their lives.”

One of his fondest moments so far in the country was his team’s gold medal victory at the Lusofonia Games against Angola. Flemming said that he was amazed to see over 4,000 fans in the stadium in final against Angola chanting 'In-dia!" "In-dia!' "It was like an NBA home court advantage," he said, "For our players, it was great to have that support at home that basketball doesn't usually get." Flemming wants to ensure that moments like those keep coming to India’s top basketball players and fans of the team.

To do that, he will have to provide continuity for the national team like never before. “I was hired to be here long-term,” he said, “No American basketball head coach has been able to stay in India for over one year. I am nearing the end of my second year now. I might stay longer, but will probably know my future plans clearer sometime over the next month. In any case, I know that I always want to remain connected with Indian basketball.”

Women’s coach Francisco Garcia admitted to being a little hazier on his individual future plans, but his preparations for the future of his team seemed to be very much on track. “My contract expires at the end of June,” Garcia says, “We will see what happens after that.”

If he stays the course, Garcia will oversee two more Women’s national camps, lead the team for an international exposure games trip at some point, and then head out to the Asian Games in Incheon, Korea, in September.

Garcia spoke to me last week about looking ahead to an Indian team beyond the talents of the great Geethu Anna Jose, who has been one of the most dominant players in the continent over the past decade. As she has gotten older, Garcia is aware that the youth will have to eventually step up to take her place. 

“The younger players in the system have already shown a lot of improvement,” said Garcia, who had played mostly an under-23 squad at the Lusofonia Games. Recently, in the delay before some of the veterans had showed up to the India camp, he claimed that the youngsters had continuing to impress him, “After [Jose] leaves the team, we'll have a major gap in the middle and will need to find another player who can dominate the paint. But in other areas, I think that the team has enough talent.”

Jose has been an anomaly to basketball in India, a player so talented that nobody has even come close to match her production ever in women’s basketball. For a decade (or more), Jose was a force at the Asian level too, played professionally in Australia and Thailand, and even earned trials with three WNBA teams. Jose was not at her best for India at the recent FIBA Asia Championship, but was still important in the post at crucial moments and played a part in India's fifth-place finish. But overall, for the first time in the 'Jose era', the team didn't need her to put up monster numbers in each game, and instead, the offense was more divided than it has ever been in recent years.

So do we have the talent to make up for her eventual swan song from the game?

“India definitely has the talent [after Jose],” Garcia said, “But we have to work at honing that talent. We must build a system where we can train these players at a younger age. There are other young players now like Kavita Akula, Poojamol KS, or Jeena PS who all have the potential to become good enough to play in foreign professional leagues and have a good career.”

Since Garcia took over, the Women’s side finished at a best-ever fifth place at the FIBA Asia Championship for Women and won bronze at the Lusofonia Games. Meanwhile, Flemming’s Men’s team has improved their FIBA Asia finish from 14th to 11th (and they were two close losses away from perhaps finishing a couple of spots higher) and won gold at the Lusofonia Games. Both coaches have taken a deep role in the development of youth players and Indian coaches.

But both Flemming and Garcia know that, for India to truly get a bigger boost forward, a professional basketball league could be the game-changer.

“When the league finally happens, our best players will have a platform to shine on and to play regularly, at least for those few months every year,” said Flemming, “Theoretically, there will also be good coaches to guide them and the players will also stay in shape around the year. Hopefully, the players wouldn’t need to take part in the smaller invitational tournaments.”

“Moreover, the league might even allow NRIs to play at a competitive level in India,” Flemming added, “That is the dream for many of the star Indian-origin players in other parts of the world right now.”

“A proper league would make the players practice and compete continuously,” said Garcia, “It would help our players a lot, and especially if he can have them learn to play among talented import players.”

Despite India’s billion-plus population, sports – not named cricket – have usually taken a back seat, and basketball like many other sports has unfortunately overseen year after year of unfulfilled potential among Indian talents. Things are improving though, but everyone involved with the game in the country knows that the improvement won’t be an overnight miracle; we have to be patient with the baby steps out of the cellar.

And the Coaches at the helm – Flemming and Garcia – who are both on track for the longest tenures of any foreign senior basketball head coaches in India yet, understand the importance of keeping an eye out at the future. Whether they stay long term with the teams or not, we hope that they can leave a working system behind that continues to identity and train talents from an earlier age, prepare the coaches with the right coaching tactics and philosophies, and eventually, turn some of those baby steps to improvement into giant strides forward. 

So, all together now, Aagey Chalo. Vamos.

May 14, 2014

Indian teenager Ashika Kuruvilla continues to improve her basketball talents in New York

This is a pretty late update, but hey - better late than never! Bangalore's Ashika Kuruvilla, who had shown incredible basketball promise at the Sub-Junior and Youth level for India and for the state of Karnataka, decided to take her talents abroad a few years ago to get the most out of her potential. Now, a year after finishing her rookie season at the Baruch College of the City University of New York, the 18-year-old has already begun to give the first few glimpses of that potential come to reality. Kuruvilla played a small but significant role in her first year for the Baruch Bearcats, who won the City University of New York Athletic Conference (CUNYAC) championship trophy and played in the NCAA National Division 3 tournament.

Kuruvilla, who studied previously at the Bishop Cotton Girls High School in Bangalore and then at the Christ the King Regional High School in New York, played about 14 minutes a game in 27 games in her first season for Baruch. The 6'1" Center averaged 4 points, 4.8 rebounds, and 1.1 blocks per game. The high-point of her season was when she was named CUNYAC's Con Edison Women's Basketball Rookie of the Week in late January/early February, putting up numbers of 9 points, 8 rebounds, and 2 blocks per game for the week.

Kuruvilla also played against Hunter College in the CUNYAC championship game, which Baruch 70-54 won to clinch their seventh consecutive title and earn an automatic berth to the NCAA Division 3 Tournament. In the tournament game against Hartwick College, Baruch suffered a heart-breaking 80-77 loss in overtime and ended their season with a 21-8 record.

In the coming years, Kuruvilla will hopefully gain more playing time as her game improves against the top talent. She is currently playing in the 92Y Women's Exposure Basketball League in New York City.

Her decision to live and play abroad may have robbed her a chance to tryout for India's current national teams, but in the long run, it's for the better: Kuruvilla is more likely to become an elite player playing against tougher competition and receiving better coaching in the States. And if she does return to India for a shot at the Women's national team in the future, I'm sure that she'll be able to make her mark back home, too.

May 13, 2014

Team India head to Nepal for 3rd South Asian Basketball Championship

Under Head Coach Scott Flemming, Team India has ambitions to keep rising up the basketball ranks at the Asian level. To do that, they must first prove that they are still the top team in their own region. India will be among five teams competing in the 3rd South Asian Basketball Championship, organized by the South Asian Basketball Association (SABA), and set to be held in Kathmandu (Nepal) from Tuesday, May 13th to Saturday, May 17th.

A victory for India in the championship will confirm their qualification for the Asia Cup, set to be held in Wuhan (China) in mid-July.

This is the first time that Nepal will be hosting an international basketball tournament of this stature. The championship was earlier scheduled from 24 April to 28 April 2014 and was postponed due to technical reasons.

The history of the SABA Championship has been erratic: the first edition was hosted by India in Assam back in 2002, and the host country emerged as winners with a win over Bangladesh in the Final. India didn't take part in the 2nd edition of the tournament which was held last January, and was won by hosts Bangladesh.

This year, the competing teams are India, hosts Nepal, Maldives, Bangladesh, and Sri Lanka. India's presence in the tournament immediately labels as them favourites to win the tournament.

India's final 12-man roster for this tournament:
  • Joginder Singh
  • Akilan Akil
  • Vishesh Bhriguvanshi
  • Narender Kumar Grewal
  • Vinay Kaushik
  • Prakash Mishra
  • Pratham Singh
  • Ranbir Singh
  • Yadwinder Singh
  • Amjyot Singh Gill
  • Rikin Pethani
  • Amrit Pal Singh
  • Head Coach: Scott Flemming
Here is India's schedule at the SABA Championship:
  • March 14 - 5 PM: India vs. Bangladesh.
  • March 15 - 2 PM: India vs. Sri Lanka.
  • March 16 - 2 PM: India vs. Nepal.
  • March 17 - 11 AM: India vs. Maldives.
India will be dealing with their two most-likely toughest opponents - Bangladesh and Sri Lanka - in the first two games, and if they can get big wins in the first two days, they should be able to comfortably close out the match-ups against Nepal and the Maldives.

To prepare for the tournament, Team India spent several weeks at training camp at the Jaypee Greens Integrated Sports Center in Greater Noida where the shape of this team began to take shape. This is set to be the first international challenge for India since their gold medal triumph at the Lusofonia Games in Goa in February. India will be relying top players like Vishesh Bhriguvanshi, Amrit Pal Singh, Yadwinder Singh, Pratham Singh, Amjyot Singh, and Joginder Singh to come up bit for the SABA championship. New faces like Tamil Nadu point guard Akilan Akil and Punjab's Ranbir Singh should boost up India's guard play. India should be able to take care of business and prove that continuity under Coach Flemming - who has been at the helm for almost two years now - will improve the team's understanding among each other. India's top players have said that the team is a lot more unselfish now and have truly accept a 'team first' philosophy under the American Head Coach. Hopefully this will translate to more efficient play on court, and eventually, a first-place finish.

May 12, 2014

The MVP Burden

By lifting the MVP award for the first time in his career, Kevin Durant has joined an exclusive list of some of the NBA's All Time greats. But the award may be less of a reward and more of a burden on the young superstar, as he now has the pressure of delivering in the post-season. Will Durant fizzle out in the playoffs in the greatest year of his career so far, or will he go all the way and cap it with his first championship?

Click here to read the full feature.

May 11, 2014

Notes: I attended the NBA Yao School in Beijing

A few months ago, SLAM Magazine published an interview I did with former NBA great Yao Ming, the greatest basketball player to ever come out of Asia and still the most respected and powerful man in Chinese Basketball. While the majority of our discussion was a fond look back at Yao's short-yet-effective NBA career and his legacy, Yao was definitely keen to also promote his newest venture in China with the outside world. Earlier this year, he launched the first season of the NBA Yao School in Beijing, a programme to offer after-school and weekend basketball training and fitness programmes for children of a varied age group and at all skill levels.

The 'school' has been in session since February at the Wukesong Basketball Park in Beijing, led by basketball operations heads and coaches appointed by the NBA. Children from ages 6-16 have signed up and now, the first season of the programme is in its tailend as the final days approach towards the end of May.

On Friday (May 9th), I finally got a chance to attend one of the sessions of the NBA Yao School in person to watch the basketball teaching in action. It was the 11th session of its first season. The coaches leading the session were Billy Singelton (former British Basketball League legend) and Greg Stolt (Associate Vice President of Basketball Operations - NBA China and basketball world traveler!).

Children participating in the NBA Yao School have been divided into four age groups: 6-9, 10-12, 13-14, and 15-16. At this point, the school only had male students. The NBA handed the children jerseys or T-shirts representing the Rockets, Knicks, Spurs, and Heat. For the sessions, the Wukesong Basketball Park has been designed to give a mini NBA experience, with banners of several NBA teams on hanging from the rafters and life-size shots of some of the league's biggest superstars like Russell Westbrook, Dwight Howard, or Derrick Rose plastered on the wall behind the basket.

Watching the camp and sessions in action, I was reminded of the interview and conversation I had about the school with Yao months ago. Yao told me of his intentions to encourage Chinese youngsters outside of the classroom and on to the playground. "The education system [in China] has been focused only on academics," said Yao, "I feel that sports are equally important. Sports can provide a social experience before a child steps into the real world. The idea was for an after-school program where kids can relax their minds from school and have a chance to learn to become a team member. Concepts like teamwork, communication, cooperation or leadership can’t just be learned from paper; you have to experience them. And that’s what Yao School is here for. Basketball skills are the strategy to put that experience together."

"This is character education," he added, "For years, kids in China have been isolated. Isolated at home, because of the one-child policy, and in school, where everyone is worried about [grades]. I want to take them out of that element and give them a chance to play as a group. A future career cannot be done in isolation; you have to work with somebody."

From one sense, I could see that Yao's concern of 'isolation' that many of these youngsters might have without siblings was definitely addressed at the session - in action, not in words. With so many peers of their age group around them, it was heartening to see the kids - especially the youngest ones - interacting and having fun with others of their age and with the common interest in basketball. It made me a little jealous too: there could have been so many life lessons such as communication, leadership, or teamwork that I would've learnt much better had they been taught through basketball, instead of through a boring old teacher in a classroom.

Singleton's aim wasn't just to teach the kids on-court skills; he started off the session by tackling basketball philosophies, and on the 11th session, the message was an encouraging call to spend more time at practice. "No substitute for hard work," he said. A little bit of English basketball termanology was taught, too, and translated into Mandarin; phrases such as "post up" or "6th Man".

Fridays are the only days when all the age levels come to train together, but after the pre-game workouts, they are all divided into their groups to focus on various different skill-set training. On this day, Singleton started with the youngest group, who are still only at the age where the training is still mostly concerned with fitness more than specific basketball skills. Stolt worked with some of the older kids on defensive drills first before moving on to other activities.

China loves basketball. This is no secret, as the sport is probably a favourite in the country with the world's largest population, and has especially been on the upswing ever since Yao was drafted # 1 in the 2001 NBA draft and went on to enjoy a multiple-time All Star career. But post-Yao there has been no one from the country to fill his void - on and off the court. China has been searching for a replacement ever since, but it is near-impossible to emulate a star of Yao's physical stature and skills. Yao had made it clear that his school won't be specifically looking to groom the next star player (or the next him); instead, the focus will be on the majority of kids who are being encouraged to take up the sport as a serious hobby, if not necessarily a profession.

In the coming weeks, there will be a few more similar sessions for the first batch of NBA Yao School students, before this year's schedule concludes at the end of this month. Yao, who has occasionally attended and given advice himself, will be in Beijing for the finale. If this year is considered a success, Yao had mentioned that he will be hoping to expand the school to several other cities in China - starting with his hometown Shanghai - and help the philosophies and on-court training reach out to many more kids around the country.

May 9, 2014

ONGC basketball team shifts base from Dehradun to Chennai, strengthen Tamil Nadu squad

When two of the finest teams in the country face each other, fans expect fireworks. But when the two teams merge into one, it calls for doomsday for every other opponent in the nation. This is exactly what may happen in the foreseeable future for Indian basketball. Tamil Nadu were already the hottest team in Indian hoops after they won the Men's gold medal at the National Championship in Delhi back in March. Now, one of the most talented clubs in India - ONGC - has announced that it will be shifting base from Dehradun to Chennai, which means that Tamil Nadu will be boosted with all the ONGC players who had been representing the state of Uttarakhand until now.

Photo Courtesy:
The Oil and Natural Gas Corporation - or ONGC - employ some of India's top players including present and former internationals such as Vishesh Bhriguvanshi, Amrit Pal Singh, Yadwinder Singh, Trideep Rai, Murali Krishna and many more. ONGC have won most of the Men's titles in most All India invitational tournaments in recent years and their stars helped guide Uttarakhand to the 2013 National Championship gold, too. Earlier this year, Uttarakhand finished fourth in the Senior Nationals, while Tamil Nadu took home the gold.

The Asian Age recently reported that ONGC - the 2014 Federation Cup champions - will be shifting both their strong basketball and volleyball teams to Chennai, bolstering the national champion Tamil Nadu sides in both squads. According to the report, the players have been ordered to report at the Chennai office on June 13.

Although no players have appeared on record, the report - written by C. Santhosh Kumar - quoted a key member of the ONGC basketball squad who said, "The [ONGC] management always wanted better exposure [for] its team and I reckon it's the reason behind shifting base to Chennai, where basketball and volleyball are more vibrant than Dehradun. Even though talks started a year ago, receiving the order on Tuesday evening was a big surprise."

Tamil Nadu's basketball fraternity will be glad to be spoiled for choice now in choosing their Men's state teams, and it should make for some healthy competition. Currently, the Indian Overseas Bank (IOB) is the only public sector company in Chennai that regularly recruits players. IOB have done fairly well on the national stage, though, and many of their players were in TN's national winning side. Stars like Rikin Pethani, Pratham Singh, SP Venkatesh, and more will be contending for their spots for Tamil Nadu after their recent successes.

"I understand that the ONGC board has approved the change of base," said L. Suren, Treasurer of the Tamil Nadu Basketball Association (TNBA), "If they come to Chennai, it will create more job opportunities for Tamil Nadu players and help develop the sport here."

But how soon could ONGC players start suiting up for Tamil Nadu? Rules state that a player must reside in a state for at least six months before being eligible to represent it. Suren added that, "in this case, apart from the residential status, the Basketball Federation of India (BFI) can decide straightaway because the entire team will be moving from one place to another."

But not everyone is happy about this move. In a report published on The Hindu today, some of ONGC's basketball players have expressed disappointment over the move from Dehradun to Chennai.

Via The Hindu

Speaking to The Hindu on Thursday, V.K. Mahendru, Head, Corporate Sports (New Delhi) said: “As far as volleyball is concerned we are hopeful that it will be in Chennai, but when it comes to basketball, we are yet to make a call. The final decision will be taken within 10-15 days. Whatever we do, we will do it in the best interest of the team.”
A senior basketball player said most of the players were not happy with the move.
He argued that, with Chennai being home to good teams such as IOB, ICF, Customs and Indian Bank, not many ONGC players will get the chance to represent Tamil Nadu.
“We have two cement courts in our residential colony (in Dehradun). Where will we now practice in Chennai? And the weather too is hot,” he said.
Another player said: “They’ve decided. We have no choice. We have got the orders to join duty in Chennai on June 13 after playing in an all-India tournament in Hyderabad.”
He said the Tamil Nadu team selection will now be tougher with so many good hoopsters.
“While Tamil Nadu basketball team will be very strong, other teams will not be so.”

You can only have 12 players in a team, and the presence of ONGC players fighting for their spot against other IOB/Tamil Nadu players should make for some fascinating competition in the state. Star players will be snubbed, but overall, it could make for one hell of a roster top to bottom for TN. They will become the Indian hoops version of a 'super-team'; and the pressure will be on rivals from Punjab, Services, or Indian Railways to step up a gear. The losers of his move will unfortunately be Uttarakhand, who will be left with little without the ONGC talent and could experience a major drop in national rankings next year.

May 8, 2014

Any city, one game

This feature was first published as 'The Opening Tip' in the 129th edition (2014 - No. 8) of SLAM China magazine. Here is my original English version of the story.

For international fans of the NBA, the league didn’t just teach us how to play the game, it also taught us North American geography. Even without visiting the locations, we knew the locations of American cities purely based on the division or conference they play in.

But the one fact that most global fans couldn’t ever fully appreciate – residing thousands of miles away from the NBA’s home teams – is how much the profile of a city has mattered to match its basketball output in the past. In the previous 67 years of its history, the NBA has featured franchises from various cities around the US and Canada, but some cities resonated with basketball culture much more than others.

Since the league’s inception in 1946-47 as the Basketball Association of America (BAA), three marquee franchises – the Knicks, the Lakers, and the Celtics – have survived the majority of its history while several others folded or moved. Two of these three teams – the Celtics and the Knicks – have represented major American cities with a historically serious basketball fanbases in Boston and New York from 1946. A year later, the third – Lakers – came into existence and have had a major stronghold on professional basketball; initially in Minneapolis, and famously from 1960 onwards, in Los Angeles.

Boston, New York, and Los Angeles not only represented the largest basketball markets for the NBA but were also responsible for most of the league’s success. Since 1947, at least one of these three teams made it into the NBA playoffs. 67 years in a row.
Until now.

For the first time in NBA history, we are witnessing a post-season without the Celtics, Lakers or the Knicks. What would’ve been unthinkable in the days of a young NBA is now passé. Because of its global presence and the power of the internet and social media, there is now very little correlation to a city and its team’s global popularity. The most internationally popular and/or talented teams in the league currently play in Miami (where basketball isn’t a favourite sport) and Oklahoma City (a tiny city where the Thunder are the only pro sport team). Teams from relatively ‘smaller’ markets like San Antonio, Memphis, Indiana are catching the imaginations of fans worldwide, fans who barely care about the name on the front of the jersey instead of the one on the back. A player like Kevin Durant (OKC), LeBron James (back in Cleveland), or even Kevin Love (Minnesota) can turn any city into an NBA city. The borders are widened far beyond New York, Boston, and LA.

The franchises we ignore today could be the world’s top selling jerseys a year from now. And even teams from Milwaukee or Utah could get their hands on Andrew Wiggins or Jabari Parker and continue the trend. For the 21st century NBA, it’s barely about the city anymore, as long as it’s the one game above all.

May 7, 2014

NBA store launched in India by Jabong, featuring Abhishek Bachchan

A few years ago, I floated around an idea to Troy Justice, the NBA's Senior Director of International Basketball Operations, but more importantly, the point-man at all of the NBA's events in India over the past few years. The idea was to photograph Indian people in random NBA gear, preferably outside of basketball related events. I was inspired when I'd seen an elder gentlemen who looked like everyone's Indian uncle carrying a Seattle Supersonics backpack in the Delhi Metro.

Unfortunately, outside of a few clicks here and there, this little photography project didn't really come to realization. NBA gear had always been rare in India. Anyone who has owned an NBA jersey or team/player T-Shirt in the country knows the feeling of kinship when we see another of our tribe, another NBA fan in India rocking the colours of their favourite squad. We feel this kinship because outside of perhaps our own usual circles, these are rare sightings (and for the record, I still haven't come another Knicks fan in India except for the bearded man in the mirror).

While young fans in the country have gone IPL or EPL crazy in recent years, a very proud few own authentic NBA clothing.

The good news is that this is all about to change.

At a gala event at the Four Seasons Hotel in Mumbai on Tuesday, May 6th, the NBA - in partnership with with Jabong - announced the launch of the first official NBA online store in India, The announcement was made at a press conference in Mumbai attended by Bollywood star and NBA fan Abhishek Bachchan. Through this partnership, the widest assortment of NBA merchandise ever will be available in India - including the first-ever NBA products for women in the country! is an NBA-branded destination within – one of the leading sports and fashion destinations in India -- which has 30 million unique visitors per month and delivers to more than 400 cities, towns and villages. The collection of approximately 200 NBA products will include shorts, jerseys and t-shirts for men and women and will be priced between Rs 1400 – 14000. The online store will complement the NBA’s partnership with adidas which offers fans NBA products in more than 200 adidas stores across India. NBA India report that merchandise sales for NBA products through these adidas stores have doubled each of the last two seasons in India.

"The online e-commerce platform is another way of reaching out to the fans and engaging them," said Yannick Colaco, the Managing Director of NBA India, "NBA will have a range of products including jerseys, footwear, fan apparel, bags, caps, basketballs and unique fashion collections. The most important part of the initiative is its reach: fans in over 400 cities, towns and villages across India will now have access to NBA merchandise with a click of a button."

This announcement comes amid rapid growth of the NBA’s fanbase in India. This season, a record 14 games per week are televised on SONY SIX, up from six last season, viewership has grown by triple digits, and attendance at grassroots basketball events has doubled.

"Sports are a major draw among today’s youth in India and we have seen a spike in demand for branded sportswear on Jabong,” said Praveen Sinha, Co-founder and Managing Director, “We are extremely happy to partner with one of the biggest and greatest brands in sports, and are confident that the NBA will be able to power the game of basketball to the same levels of popularity seen in other parts of the world."

Jabong and the NBA will promote the site extensively across TV, digital and social media. Products will be integrated into NBA television programs airing in India such as NBA Inside Stuff; NBA players and legends will participate in Google Hangouts; and an section will be created within NBA Jam, the league’s college-based basketball and entertainment touring property which will travel to 16 cities later this year.

Fans that purchase merchandise will even have a chance to win authentic autographed NBA jerseys as well as tickets to NBA regular season games, NBA All-Star and The Finals.

This is the NBA's fifth international online store since 2012, after NBATienda in Mexico, in Brazil, in Europe, the Middle East, and Africa, and in China.

Bollywood star Abhishek Bachchah - famously a Lakers fan - was the special guest in a brilliant move by the NBA/Jabong to appeal to the masses. Bachchan showed up to the event in a Lakers # 1 jersey, which in recent years has been worn by such esteemed names like Smush Parker, Javaris Crittenton, Jordan Farmar, Joe Smith, and Darius Morris. To my disappointment, I later discovered that the jersey said 'Bachchan Jr.' on the back and not 'Parker'. Anyways, Bachchan spoke at great length about his love for the game of basketball, the celebrity games he plays in with Dino Morea, and how excited he is for Jabong/NBA's new store which will allow him and other Indians to easily order NBA gear cheaply from India.

(By the way, wouldn't it be great if fans of Abhishek Bachchan who don't know much about the NBA specifically decide to order Lakers # 1 jerseys to look like their favourite Bollywood star? We could have a whole army of Smushes. That's the kind of world I want to live in).

"I could probably go on and on talking about how great [basketball] is," Bachchan told DNA India, "But then to gist it in a few words I believe the sport is exhilarating, it's fast, relentless, robust... It makes you a complete athlete and is just a complete sport."

Browing through (which is part of the Jabong website), I was pretty impressed and happy about the collection (apart from the fact that the models sporting the gear didn't exactly look very Indian). The goods on sale are divided into four parts: Jerseys, Footwear, Bottoms, and T-Shirts. Most importantly, the prices are fair for the Indian market and not comparable to the high costs the same gear would be on sale internationally.

The products include: on-court product and fan gear from adidas; women’s and men’s fan gear from Levelwear; NBA socks from New Horizon; official NBA basketballs from Spalding, and basketball footwear from adidas, Reebok, Nike and Brand Jordan. Additional exclusive products will be added each season.

As you may expect, there is a lot of Miami Heat gear. But there are also T-Shirts/Jerseys featuring teams like the Knicks, Spurs, Lakers, Thunder, and Bulls, and players including Derrick Rose, Kevin Durant, Blake Griffin, Rajon Rondo, and Paul George. And ya, LeBron and Kobe. Lots and lots of LeBron and Kobe.

The most exciting thing is the shoe collection. If adidas, Nike, Jordan Brand and more shoes can be bought easily online by the Indian basketball player, it could solve decades of suffering for those who have wanted other shoes than the same two or three options that the sport stores in India carry under the 'Basketball' section at any given time. For the longest time, those who have wanted a wider collection of kicks in India have had to buy when they travel internationally, order online from other countries, or ask their foreign uncles and aunties for help. At least for some, consider those problems solved. Last I checked, had 30 different sneaker options, already a much bigger number than what is available at stores in India, and hopefully, there will be many more options in the coming months and years. I would see many more. and things will REALLY get interesting when they start getting some off-the-court shoes as well as - gasp! - old school stuff. is definitely a work in progress. Hopefully, they are able to add a lot more gear and many more options in the future. Either way, true NBA fans will be glad to have an option of buying various NBA apparel for decent prices and be shipped to almost any town in India for cheap.

I might be way overdue now to restart my 'Indians in NBA gear' photography project. And anyways, if all goes well, it wouldn't be too rare to see people around the country - at random locations - sporting NBA apparel anymore. If the popularity of the NBA continues to skyrocket in India like it has in recent years, the Jabong/NBA store will be welcomed with open arms (or liberal clicks of the buttons). Finally, NBA gear will be easily available for fans in India, and the popularity of the gear should help grow even more fans of the league in the country.

(And maybe I'll finally see another real Knicks fan in India!)

May 6, 2014

1st BFI-IMG Reliance National School/College League concludes with Ludhiana, Chennai teams on top

It started nearly six months ago in Hyderabad. It traveled through eight Indian cities for the school phase, and then back to the eight for more in the college phase, oversaw the participation of 320 school and college teams from across the country, and featured thousands of young Indian men and women competing passionately to be the last one's standing.

And finally, over the past week, as the champions of each of the Indian cities in both the school and college divisions and in both men and women sections got together in New Delhi for the National Finals, the best of the best rose to the top to life the National trophies.

On Sunday, the last day of the 1st BFI-IMG Reliance National School/College Basketball League for Boys and Girls, school teams from Ludhiana and college squads from Chennai emerged as champions after five entertaining days of basketball at the Thyagaraj Indoor Stadium in New Delhi. The final champions were:

School (Girls): Government Girls Senior Secondary School (Ludhiana).
School (Boys): Sr Nav Bharti Public School (Ludhiana).
College (Women): M.O.P. Vaishnav College (Chennai).
College (Men): Jeppiar Institute of Technology (Chennai).

The national championship featured a total of 32 teams, all of whom were the winners of their respective cities' school (girls), school (boys), college (women), or college (men) championships. The team's were chosen after five months of games in the largest-ever iteration of the BFI-IMG Reliance School or College leagues, held in a record eight Indian cities: Hyderabad, New Delhi, Mumbai, Chennai, Ludhiana, Indore, Kolkata, and Bangalore. This was the first ever national tournament and it tipped off on April 30th.

In the School (Girls) final on Sunday, Ludhiana's Government Girls School survived a close game and a late charge by St. Joseph's (Chennai) behind 20 points by Samriti 24 and 20 from Gagandeep. It took an important third quarter run for the Ludhiana side to pull away from their competition. Devi had a game-high 27 in a losing effort for St. Joseph's.

Gurvinder Singh Gill of Nav Bharti (Ludhiana) and Rohon from Fr. Agnel School (Mumbai) faced off in an epic shootout in the School (Boys) Final for the title. Gurvinder outscored Rohon 39-37, and his squad pulled away after a tight contest in the final period to win 97-85. Love Neet Atwal added 26 for the winning side. For Fr. Agnel, Tanmay added 16.

The College (Women) final also featured a great individual battle. Gomathi of MOP Vaishnav College (Chennai) and Simonelle from SBM Jain College (Mumbai) were both determined to lead their respective squads to victory. In a thrilling contest where both sides remained locked neck to neck till the very end, it was finally a clutch free-throw by MOP's captain Diviya that proved to be the difference that gave her side the close 74-73 win. Gomathi finished with 37 big points while her teammate Akshaya added 18. For SBM, Simonelle had a team-high 33 while Sindhuri chipped in with 16.

The last final was also the day's closest matchup. The star-studded Jeppiar Institute (Chennai) and Government College (Ludhiana) played in a classic back-and-forth game that revealed the best of the players' characters. After going 10 points down in the first quarter, Jeppiar bounced back to take a lead at halftime. Government College stuck with them the whole way however, and when the final buzzer sounded, neither team was ready to give in as the score remained tied at 74 each. On to overtime they went, and it finally took some clutch shots from the field and the line by Jeppiar's Arun Hari (28 points) which proved to be the difference as his side survived for an 88-85 win. Shashank added 24 for Jeppiar. Government College's loss wasted a couple of monster nights by talented big man Palpreet Singh (42 points) and Harmandeep (31).

All four winning teams from the four categories were awarded Rs 1,00,000 each, runners up took home Rs 75,000 and the third placed teams received Rs 50,000.

In the third/fourth place match, Madhu Kumari scored 34 points and Ananya S. added 17 as Modern School (Delhi) bounced back from a first quarter deficit Bishop Cotton High School (Bangalore) 65-61 in the School (Girls) Final. A Delhi side also won the boys game, as Oxford School were paced by the duo of Saurav (24) and Abhishek (23) to take an early lead over Bhavari's Prominent (Indore) and run away to a 85-71 win. Laxman scored a game-high 39 points in the loss for Bhavari's.

In the College (Women) third/fourth place game, Government College (Ludhiana) easily dismantled Renaissance College (Indore) for a 72-33 victory, in a game which included a dominating 24-3 third quarter in favour of the Ludhiana side. The Men's game was a high-scoring affair where SBM Jain College (Bangalore) were led by Vinoth (31), Visu (22) and Kaif (17) to defeat Kirori Mal College (Delhi) 98-85. Harish (31) and Aditya (22) led the way in scoring for the Delhi unit.

The final day of the tournament also featured a half-an-hour exhibition training session of India's Senior National Men's squad, led by Head Coach Scott Flemming. The players performed several lay-up, passing, and shooting drills for the audience of young college and school players and also played in a short practice game.

Final Results
  • School Girls: Government Girls Senior Secondary School (Ludhiana) (Samriti 24, Gagandeep 20) bt St Joseph HS (Chennai) (Devi 27) 59-55 (15-14, 12-13, 19-12, 13-16).
  • School Boys: Sr Nav Bharti Public School (Ludhiana) (Gurwinder 39, Loveneet 26) bt Fr Agnel School (Mumbai) (Rohon 37, Tanmay 16, Varun 13) 97-85 (20-18, 24-26, 19-17, 34-24).
  • College Women: M.O.P. Vaishnav College (Chennai) (Gomathi 37, Akshaya 18, Mildred 13) bt SBM Jain College (Bangalore) (Simonelle 33, Sindhuri 16) 74-73 (18-18, 14-17, 21-16, 21-22).
  • College Men: Jeppiar Institute of Technology (Chennai) (Arun Hari 28, Shashank 24) bt Government College (Ludhiana) (Palpreet Singh 42, Harmandeep 31) 88-85 OT (12-22, 27-13, 15-18, 20-21, 14-11).

Third/Fourth Place Matchups
  • School Girls: Modern School (New Delhi) (Madhu Kumari 34, Ananya S 17) bt Bishop Cotton High School (Bangalore) (Shanice 15, Aksa 13, Lopamudra 12) 65-61 (9-16, 22-11, 14-17, 21-17).
  • School Boys: Oxford School (New Delhi) (Saurav 24, Abhishek 23) bt The Bhavan’s Prominent (Indore) (Laxman 39, Mayank 15) 85-71 (29-14, 14-18, 15-21, 27-18).
  • College Women: Government College (Ludhiana) bt Renaissance College (Indore) 72-33 (21-10, 14-8, 24-3, 13-12).
  • College Men: SBM Jain College (Bangalore) (Vinoth 31, Visu 22, Kaif 17) bt Kirori Mal College (New Delhi) (Harish 31, Aditya 22, Dheeraj 14) 98-85 (20-22, 22-20, 28-14, 28-29).

Most Valuable Players
  • School Girls: Gagandeep Kaur (Government Senior Secondary School, Amritsar).
  • School Boys: Gurwinder Singh (Sr. Nav Bharti School, Ludhiana).
  • College Women: Gomathi K (M.O.P. Vaishnav College, Chennai).
  • College Men: P Vijay (Jeppiar Institute of Technology, Chennai).

All photos via Basketball Federation of India. Click here to see comprehensive Final results from the championship via the BFI.

Close Encounters: Previewing the Second Round of the Playoffs

So, how are we supposed to top that? How are we supposed to top perhaps the greatest First Round in NBA Playoffs history? Record numbers of Game sevens, overtimes, and very many clutch moments?

Only eight teams now remain as we look forward to the Second Round. Here are my predictions for who will survive and advance to the Conference Finals.

Click here to see full feature.